Exploring the Intricate Sand Mandala of Buddhism

buddhist monks creating a sand mandala

Standing on the outside, looking into the profound depths of symbolism represented in a colorful Buddhist sand mandala, fascination and imagination find rare delight. Layer upon layer, the mandala draws the viewer in, slowly, reflectively, intriguingly toward the center. The journey from the present reality to the possible sublime is lined with intricate angles and paved with powder-soft sand.

Exploring the Buddhist mandala, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) explains that they are “models of reality based upon Buddhist insights into the human mind.” The outside represents where the viewer is at that moment, and the center represents the Buddha-nature. Viewing is like traveling “across different worlds and layers of meaning, from the sensual through the reflective to the extraordinary emptiness at the center.”

“On this journey, you are asked to encounter the diverse levels of meaning, existence, purpose, and intention that surround us all – and which we so rarely stop to explore. They are like layers of skin wrapped so tightly around us that we cannot see them. The mandala takes us pictorially and psychologically into an exploration of these, peeling the layers off until we come to the heart of things.” [-ARC]

Famous Tibetan Buddhist Mandalas

Tibetan Buddhist monks are famous for their intricate sand mandalas, which they use for healing or for purification. Consecrating the site upon which they will create a mandala, the monks start with chants and sacred music. The initial outline of the mandala design is typically made with chalk and compass. Powdered and colored sand, marble, grains, herbs, flowers and even gemstones may be used to fill in the design.

To fill the design with the colored sand, the monks use a metal funnel called a chak-pur. The chak-pur’s surface is grated, and a metal rod rubbing this surface generates vibrations which make the sand flow smoothly.

image (Image note and source: Completed Buddhist Sand Mandala. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institute)

20 Buddhist Monks Offer Healing for America

One of the larger and more famous mandalas created in the West was a seven-foot-square mandala constructed at the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. In response to the September 11 tragedies, the Dalai Lama called for the making of the sand mandala, offering healing protection for America.

Twenty Buddhist monks traveled to Washington, DC from the Drepung Loseling Monastery. Originally established in Lhasa in 1416, the Drepung Monastery population was over ten thousand monks. Loseling, or the “Hermitage of the Radiant Mind,” was its largest department, housing over 75% of this population. After 1959, the monastery was exiled and shifted its headquarters to Karnataka, India. The Loseling Institute is now located in Atlanta, Georgia, and houses 2,500 monks.

Mandalas Symbolize “the Impermanence of Existence”

It took two weeks of steady work in two shifts daily for the twenty monks to construct the huge sand mandala. While it was being created, Sackler Gallery staff took hourly images to create a time-lapse animation. In addition, the monks also held other traditional healing ceremonies, and participated in chanting and meditation over the course of the two weeks.

When the mandala was finished, it was consecrated with prayer ceremonies. Then, having completed its healing mission, the monks gently swept up the mandala and dispersed it into flowing water. Statements on the Sackler Gallery’s mandala exhibition webpage explains, “To Tibetan Buddhists sweeping up the sand symbolizes the impermanence of existence. Pouring the sand into water dispersed the healing energies of the mandala throughout the world.”

The statements continue, “According to Buddhist scripture, a mandala transmits positive energies to the environment and to those who view it.” Fortunately, photos were taken and videos were made of this remarkable sand mandala before it was gone forever. As impermanent as snow on a sunny Spring day, the mandala serves its purpose and slips away, silently dispersing its energy into the water cycle of the Earth.

image (Image note and source: Buddhist monk sweeps away completed mandala. Sackler Gallery)

(Top image note and source: Buddhist Monks creating a sand mandala. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institute)

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About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid (Birth-name Kathleen Vail) is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, sustainable economics, corporate social responsibility, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.